Categories
Process

Four tools I use to work better from home

There’s plenty being written at the moment about staying sane whilst working from home, adapting to the change of lifestyle, and maintaining effective communication with distant colleagues. But here are four tools that have helped me to actually get good work done whilst I work from home (which I did two or three days per week until October 2018, and have done full-time since). Most of these are equally applicable in an office, but can seriously improve your output at home.

1. The right music

Carefully chosen music can encourage deep focus and boost productivity. The best tool I’ve found for this is Brain.fm. The service boasts of ‘Functional Music to Improve Focus in 15 Minutes’. Regardless of whether the science behind the music stacks up, I find it invaluable for tasks requiring concentration (most of my PhD so far has been written to the ‘Cinematic Music Focus’ station). This link provides a free trial.

A free alternative (but be wary of adverts interrupting your flow) is computer game soundtracks on YouTube – or playlists of such music on Spotify or other music services. These are designed to engage you in the task at hand and for background distractions to fade away. This YouTube channel is a good place to start.

2. Laptop stand

A very basic recommendation, but an essential one. I use an AmazonBasics laptop stand that cost a little over £10. It will save your back and neck. Requires separate keyboard and mouse, which are also worthwhile investments.

3. Distraction blocker

Stop yourself from mindlessly browsing the news or social media with a distraction blocker. I use Freedom which can block websites and applications – useful to shut off email for set periods of time or on a schedule. The very act of turning it on helps me to get into work mode, and once running it enables me to work more deeply on tasks for longer. There are several open source alternatives that I’ve used in the past, but Freedom offers more control and customisation.

4. Pomodoro timer

Depending on the task, the pomodoro technique provides great results. You’ll need to experiment, but I find tedious tasks or reading articles and reports are perfect. Seriously applying the pomodoro technique also allows you to track and increase your focused work time.

I use an open source application called Tomighty. There are more advanced options for Mac discussed here.

Opportunities

Working from home offers an opportunity to experiment with new routines, workflows, habits, tools and ways of working. Through experimentation I’ve developed ways of writing, researching and managing flows of information that have worked well for me and I will post more about in the coming weeks.

Categories
Universities

When higher education interventions don’t work

I am currently supporting a higher education project in Tunisia and came across an interesting World Bank study considered to be the first of its kind. Final year undergraduates were given the opportunity to graduate with a business plan instead of following the standard curriculum, and were offered 120 hours of training that included ‘most of the components that are considered best-practice for entrepreneurship education’. The optional entrepreneurship track started in 2009/10 and has been running since.

In the first published analysis, short-term impacts were studied:

the entrepreneurship track was effective in increasing self-employment among applicants, but that the effects are small in absolute terms. In addition, the employment rate among participants remains unchanged, pointing to a partial substitution from wage employment to self-employment. The evidence shows that the program fostered business skills, expanded networks, and affected a range of behavioural skills. Participation in the entrepreneurship track also heightened graduates’ optimism toward the future shortly after the Tunisian revolution.

A second paper, published in 2019, examined the medium-term impact using the same cohort:

The medium-term results show that the impacts of entrepreneurship education were short-lived. There are no sustained impacts on self-employment or employment outcomes four years after graduation. There are no lasting effects on latent entrepreneurship either, and the short-term increase in optimism also receded… the lack of medium-term impact holds across sub-groups based on gender, family wealth, skills or social capital.

There are several possible lessons to draw, beyond the clear difficulty of achieving lasting impact. The first is that integrating enterprise education alongside existing curricula, rather than a separate stream, could be an effective alternative. The second, as the second study suggests, is that other limitations are a bigger constraint than the nature of the training, especially accessing capital (there is evidence from Nigeria, cited in the paper, of monetary grants having long-term, positive impact). The third is the importance of continued coaching, training and mentoring beyond the initial period of study.

But what really struck me was how relatively unusual it is to come across randomised control trials of interventions in higher education (and especially published studies of those where the intervention did not work). Fields such as medicine abound with multi-year trials. Primary education has also seen its fair share – this years Nobel prize recognised the work of Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer popularised in the excellent book, Poor Economics. There are plenty of large-scale evaluations and analyses of higher education, particularly around student outcomes, but I struggle to think of large-scale, experimental interventions. My hunch is that, as recognition of the role of higher education in development and social change has increased, so too will demand for randomised control trials within the field.

Failures wanted

Tunis, Tunisia

The Tunisian study is helpful as it shows that a ‘common sense’ prescription (give students business and entrepreneurial skills instead of writing an academic thesis as part of their degree) to a commonly-perceived problem (unemployable graduates) simply did not work. I’d love to see more such studies. Sharing examples of what doesn’t work through large-scale, rigorous testing can be hugely valuable, albeit with the caveat that the results may not always be generalisable to other contexts. As I see it, several things need to be in place:

  1. The basic parameters of an academic study: a control group who do not participate in the intervention, careful analysis of the context and environment, benchmarking and continued evaluation, etc.
  2. An acceptance that the intervention may fail. This is why the World Bank is perhaps better placed to fund such a study than the Tunisian government, who would be less willing or able to share widely the outcomes if the project failed, or to experiment with public funds.
  3. A longer-term (multi-year) perspective with no expectation of clear answers in the short term.
  4. A process of freely disseminating the findings and sharing what has (not) worked.
  5. A sufficiently big budget to launch and maintain a long-term effort, and to provide the capacity for effective experimentation, iteration and evaluation. The World Bank’s Tunisia Tertiary Education for Employability Project runs for over five years and commits 70 million USD.

Crucially, these conditions combined distinguish a rigorous, experimental study from a public policy intervention. If you know of any other experimental, evidence-based studies in higher education – especially those that have been deemed to have not worked – please let me know by email or in the comments below.

Photos of Tunis, Tunisia from Unsplash. Credits: main image, article image.

Categories
Universities

Vertical farming, coronavirus and self-sufficient cities

In a post today on six ways coronavirus will change our world, Azeem Azhar writes that the coronavirus might encourage self-sufficiency, especially around food, energy and products:

Vertical farming could allow some kind of food sustainability at a community or city level. As it is, advanced hydroponic vertical farms use fewer water resources and have lower transport miles than traditional crops. Often they are pesticide and herbicide-free. Here is one example of vertical farms being rolled out to some US campus universities, presumably for those students who don’t do beer and pizza. (Japan seems to have taken the lead in vertical farming, according to the FT.)

Universities have taken the lead in developing urban farming solutions. I discuss this (as an ‘unsung hero’ of ‘smart’ cities) in my British Council report. The twist here, of course, is the potential focus on quarantine and self-sufficiency, rather than sustainability and environmental protection. Such a movement might seem at odds with much of the narrative about cities (spun by both mayors and many urban commentators) as being open, interdependent and simultaneously local and global, but perhaps better reflects a shift towards locally-produced goods and globally-shared knowledge. As Azeem adds, the powerful response of the scientific community, and the open sourcing of intelligence in tackling the virus, bodes well for addressing future cross-border challenges (good coverage of the rapid response in The Economist here).

(Photo by Emile-Victor Portenart on Unsplash)

Categories
Universities

New smart city dimensions: authoritarian regimes and technology giants

(Parla italiano? 🇮🇹 This article is available in Italian on the MEET Digital Culture Centre website!)

My report for the British Council on universities and smart cities described the first wave of smart cities led by large technology companies such as IBM and Cisco, followed by bottom-up movements from civil society groups. The report concluded that universities can effectively bridge the two and ensure communities have a say.

A couple of months after the final publication, I’m reflecting on how this picture varies outside of Europe (the focus of the research) and on additional forces that are shaping the story. Since publication I’ve briefly covered the dangers of smart city projects lacking effective partnerships in Canada, but there are two further movements that are worth keeping an eye on.

Technology giants

The first is smart cities by stealth. This movement enters through the back door (or, more accurately, is mounted onto your front door). Consumers purchase products like Ring, a doorbell fitted with a security camera, from Amazon. City hall is circumvented in the building of smart city networks, but is co-opted in later, as an excellent article in Wired (focusing on the US) explains:

In exchange for promoting Ring’s devices and its associated crime watch app Neighbors, cops are given access to a portal where they can ask citizens for footage from their cameras that may be connected to a crime without a warrant. The arrangements have come under growing scrutiny in recent months, as reporters and activists have criticised their lack of transparency and potential for privacy abuses. Public records obtained by journalists also show that Ring tightly controls how police officials can portray its dealings with the company.

These digital doorbells are motion-activated and detect activity up to around nine meters away. The creation of a massive net of video coverage managed by a private company has led 30 American civil rights organisations to ask government officials to investigate the company’s business practices and partnerships with police.

Amazon has much bigger ambitions in this area. The company’s new ‘Sidewalk’ protocol extends the connectivity of devices outside the home. The first product is a rather innocuous-sounding tag for tracking the location of your dog (called ‘Fetch’). Another article from Wired explains how the use of such devices by even a minority of people can envelop communities:

In its testing, though, [Amazon] sent out 700 gateway devices to Amazon employees in the Los Angeles basin, and because each one has a range of between 500m and up to a mile, Amazon was able to “basically cover where everyone lives in LA”… An innocent smart dog tracker like Fetch fits perfectly into this model of Amazon-networked communities sharing video, alerts and location tracking.

Authoritarian regimes

The second movement is a reminder that in some places the first wave of smart cities – a ‘top-down’ approach led by governments and industry – never really went away. Instead this approach has intensified as technology becomes cheaper and more powerful. The website Coda has excellent coverage of what it calls ‘authoritarian tech’, including the darker side of smart city projects and how ‘authoritarian technologies lurk around the infrastructure of smart cities’. Examples include how Western companies are aiding the surveillance architecture of smart cities in China, how technology is assaulting the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans and how technology can be used to surveil minorities like Uyghurs in China.

Bypassing civil society

Two stories are being told. One is vast infrastructure projects delivered across cities at scale, the other an accretion of thousands of devices. One is city government procuring from one or two companies, the other thousands of consumer transactions. But both, as the protests of American civil rights organisations and the coverage of Coda shows, have a lack of oversight and accountability and transparency, and omit the likes of civil society, universities and other bodies that can add so much.

(Photo by Miłosz Klinowski on Unsplash)

Categories
Universities

Views on the future of higher education leadership

The 2019 NCEE leadership survey report was launched last night in London, capturing the views of over 50 senior higher education leaders.

The report sits alongside, but has a different focus to, other snapshot surveys of UK higher education: PA’s annual look at the views of vice chancellors on funding and policy, and Wonkhe’s survey of university staff working in policy.

I provided the analysis and wrote the report. Read my blog on 10 key findings here, coverage in Times Higher Education here, and the full report (PDF) here.

See also: NCEE’s survey of heads of enterprise.

(Photo by NASA on Unsplash)

Categories
Universities

When anchors move, hidden anchors, and local data

Three loosely-related reflections on new things:

When anchors move

The More Means Better blog has an interesting new post on universities that have moved home, in some cases to entirely different parts of the country. Some I knew about, others were new. It’s a helpful reminder that even universities, seen as one of the most dependable ‘anchor institutions’, can up and leave when they deem it necessary (although it is pretty rare).

The college of the future

One institution embedded in more communities and neighbourhoods than universities is the further education college – often overlooked in conversations about anchors. I joined a seminar last week by the Independent Commission on the College of the Future asking what we want and need from our colleges from 2030 onwards. Most discussions returned to the essential local role of colleges (and a lack of public appreciation for the wide-ranging responsibilities they take on), their ability to act as community and business hubs (especially for the long tail of less-productive small businesses), and as a conduit to higher education, careers and apprenticeships.

This commission seems to have the ear of government, is chaired by the highly regarded Sir Ian Diamond (who has an extensive background in higher education, and will soon be the UK’s National Statistician), and is well-timed given the widely acknowledged need for support for the further education sector. The final report will be published in Spring 2020 and I expect it to be influential.

Better local data

I first wrote about the POLAR dataset back in 2016. It is helpful to measure the extent to which young people participate in higher education at a local level because where you are from is closely linked to your future education prospects, your health and your economic prosperity.

The Office for Students has introduced an experimental but more sophisticated successor to POLAR called TUNDRA. Wonkhe have published a helpful summary with some of the limitations and context.

More detailed data at a more local level is definitely a good thing – as with previous work by HEFCE on ‘cold spot’ areas that are missing a university. However, as data becomes more complex it often needs heavy caveating, as we have seen with the LEO data on graduate earnings – which is beginning to include a place dimension.

Categories
Universities

Lessons from the demise of 100 Resilient Cities

100 Resilient Cities closed its doors at the start of August. Although principally aimed at local governments and city administrations, the organisation’s focus on solving locally-identified challenges made it, in my opinion, highly relevant for universities.

The three African cities in my doctoral research – Accra, Addis Ababa and Kigali – are all resilient cities. Several posts on this site focus on resilience (examples here and here). And I have interviewed the Chief Resilience Officers in Toronto and Milan for several research projects that have stressed the role of universities in tackling urban problems.

There’s good coverage on CityLab and The Conversation on what the closure of 100 Resilient Cities means and some of the reasons for it being shuttered. Over on LinkedIn, Elliott Cappell, the former Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Toronto, posted an excellent analysis of the ascent and demise of 100 Resilient Cities, asking what can we learn. Elliott kindly gave permission for me to republish his post here – it’s well worth a read for considering what we can learn for similar future initiatives. Over to Elliott…

As of August 1st, 2019, 100 Resilient Cities is winding down.

Yes, you read that correctly: the $160m, Rockefeller-backed, global organization with offices from Mexico City to Singapore, and Chief Resilience Officers in 80 cities, has shuttered its windows.  This is a truly acute shock for anyone working on urban development, climate change, or international development.

I remember the first day I walked into 100RC’s offices in Manhattan, because that was the day I met Otis Rolley (who was then an executive of 100RC).  If you have met Otis, you will also recall your first time. Otis is so charismatic, so honest, and so intelligent that it defies description. It is hard not to like Otis.

On that April day in 2017, Otis cited scripture to describe the ascent of 100RC and its network of CROs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another”.  The passage, in this context, meant that 100RC was growing, drawing in the best people, the greatest cities, and the brightest ideas – and so drawing in even better people, more partners, and better ideas.  Otis was right, too.

Yet, just 28 months later, 100RC is finished. Wow.

How did this happen?  If you are working in cities or climate change or development, it is worth trying to understand how 100RC went from ascent to demise in just two years.  From my perspective, there are three lessons:

In public policy, simple ideas become complex very quickly.

In public policy, simple ideas become complex very quickly.  100RC started with a great idea: making cities around the world resilient to shocks, like Hurricane Katrina. They made it a bit more complex, by introducing the concept of ‘stresses’ that make those shocks worse, like poor land use planning or institutional racism.  Tackling ‘shocks and stresses’ was a huge, audacious idea, literally with the potential to change the world.

But then 100RC made it much more complex.  They promised resilience wouldn’t just be focused on the pending doom of climate change, but would actually solve ‘any challenges cities faced’.  They would create a ‘marketplace for resilience’, and ‘innovative finance for resilience’.  100RC’s approach was documented in a ‘guidance manual’ of hundreds of pages, in which ‘meetings’ became ‘bootcamps’; ‘consultants’ became ‘strategy partners’; and ‘discovery areas’ would feed into cities’ ‘opportunity assessments’.  Even the press releases are complex enough that it is really hard to understand what 100RC is doing or why.

Cities are complex systems, so it’s hard to simplify and still create meaningful change.  But the 100RC strategy should have been simpler; because simple becomes complex, and in this case, complex became unachievable.

If you get the local political economy wrong, your project will fail.

100RC’s second challenge was to apply their model, which was based on American cities’ governance, to cities around the world.  But cities are governed differently around the world. For example, as CRO in Toronto, I reported to the City Manager, who is like the CEO of the city, whereas our Mayor is like the Chairperson of the Board.  But in New York, the CRO reports to the Mayor, who is CEO and Chairperson both.

In international development, we refer to these subtle but very important differences as ‘the local political economy’.  If you get the local political economy wrong, your project will fail.

From my perspective on the ground, 100RC was not able to internalize the differences between New York and Toronto – which are only an hour away by plane.  Those differences created massive barriers to implementing 100RC’s model in our context. Now multiply that problem by 100 cities across dozens of countries, and you have a second reason 100RC is shut today: local political economy matters.

The third reason is money. 100RC spent lots and lots of money.  Annually, 100RC flew dozens of tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to Italy, where they were served meals literally topped with edible gold leaves (or gold leafs, in Toronto’s political economy).  They held a ‘resilience track’ at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas (Vegas was not a 100RC city). They held ‘learning labs’ around the world on a range of topics such as a ‘city currency’, and they spent lots doing so.

What do Las Vegas, a city currency, or consumer electronics have to do with protecting cities from climate change?  Didn’t we start this whole thing because of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy? Where was climate change in all this spending?  One can draw a connection from venture capital to city resilience (100RC tried), but it certainly isn’t straightforward.

If you’re working on public policy or using public resources, you need to keep tightly accountable to linking your budget with your outcomes.  It isn’t easy to explain why using philanthropic funds for ‘living labs’ and ‘platform partners’ (100RC parlance for site visits and for short term consulting advice) leads to improved resilience.  So the third lesson here is that monitoring and evaluation is crucial: tracking to clear metrics help us demonstrate that money is leading to change.

100RC was successful and continues to be relevant, as climate change causes problems faster than cities are coming up with solutions.

100RC was not a failure.  In a short time there has been a substantial change in how cities act and think, and it’s very impressive how much was achieved.  With most people living in cities and the climate causing problems faster than we come up with solutions, 100RC is actually still relevant.  That 100RC was successful and is relevant makes today feel like a brutal, bruising failure.

I hope many other people in our industry share their thoughts on how we got here.  100RC was a very important organization, and it is important that we, as urban development, climate change, and international development professionals, own and understand this as a collective failure.  If, by the grace of the Rockefeller Foundation, we get another shot at helping cities combat climate change, we need to identify and learn the lessons from 100RC’s demise.

Elliott

Read the original post on LinkedIn here.

Update February 2020: here’s what has happened since.

(Image credit)

Categories
Universities

Smart cities are a quiet revolution

A final quick post on my recent British Council research before we resume our usual programming: today’s i newspaper (23 July 2019) has a short piece from myself covering universities and smart cities in Nottingham, on page 18.

You can read the full report here, a summary on The Conversation here, and a podcast of the smart cities session at Going Global 2019 in Berlin here.

(Photo credit)

Categories
Universities

New wave of smart cities has arrived – and they’re nothing like science fiction

This post originally appeared on The Conversation

An abandoned mine shaft beneath the town of Mansfield, England is an unlikely place to shape the future of cities. But here, researchers from the nearby University of Nottingham are planning to launch a “deep farm” that could produce ten times as much food as farms above ground. Deep farms are an example of what the latest wave of smart cities look like: putting people first by focusing on solving urban problems and improving existing infrastructure, rather than opening shiny new buildings.

These smart cities look nothing like science fiction. In fact, the sleek, futuristic visions often used to promote smart cities tend to alienate residents. Isolated high-tech buildings, streets or cities can foster social inequality, and even free WiFi and bike-sharing schemes mainly benefit the affluent.

So instead of chasing ribbon-cutting opportunities in city centres, planners, community leaders and researchers are coming together to tackle mundane but serious issues, such as improving poor quality housing, safeguarding local food supplies and transitioning to renewable energy.

In my own research, commissioned by the British Council, I looked at how new projects and partnerships with universities in eight European cities are making life better for residents, through the clever use of technology. You may already be living in a smart city – here’s what to look out for.

More voices

Students bridging the divide.
Andrés Gerlotti/Unsplash. FAL.

These new smart cities are getting communities and universities involved, alongside big companies and city authorities. This has helped shift the focus of smart city projects onto the needs of residents. During my interviews in cities across Europe – from Bucharest, Romania to Warsaw, Poland and Zaragoza, Spain – I found that university students and researchers have played an active role in this, consulting with residents and working with city hall to promote cooperation between citizens and local institutions.

Universities produce a wealth of knowledge about the kinds of problems facing cities, and there is often a need to make more people aware of new research, so they can shape it, use it and build on it. In Milan, the City School initiative brings together the Municipality of Milan and six local universities to discuss issues facing the city. Universities take turns to showcase research and activities, and city officials test urban policy ideas with experts.

But above all, communities are now part of the conversation. The EU-funded Sharing Cities programme, led by city halls and universities in London, Lisbon and Milan, has the audacious goal of proving that at least half of the 15,000 locals affected by improvements have actively participated in the process. As such, city authorities have worked with residents to design and implement smart city technologies including smart lampposts, energy management and e-mobility (smart parking, car sharing, electric charging points and so on) – but also to ensure these changes actually improve their lives.

More complexity

Successful smart city projects blend disciplines, bringing together experts in behavioural change alongside specialists in artificial intelligence and information technologies. Interdisciplinary work can be messy and difficult, it can take longer and may not always work – but when it does, it can bring real benefits to cities.

For instance, Nottingham City Council and Nottingham Trent University have been part of the Remourban regeneration programme, working across sectors with cities around Europe. Homes in the Nottingham suburb of Sneinton have been upgraded with new outside walls and windows, a solar roof and a state of the art heating system – a process that takes just a few days.

The result is improved insulation and reduced energy bills for residents, but also better public health: calculations suggest that bad housing costs the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) £1.4 billion a year, and improving the quality of homes can cut visits to local doctors almost by half.

Darmstadt, Germany. Shutterstock.

The German city of Darmstadt has worked with citizens, universities, museums and businesses to plan for the future. For smart city projects to be embraced by residents, the benefits of new technologies need to be balanced against the need to manage privacy and security concerns. Darmstadt has set up an ethics advisory committee and has a strong focus on cyber security.

The city was recently crowned winner of the German Digital City competition, and the municipal government is now working with other German cities to share what has worked.

More places

The new wave of smart cities spreads improvements beyond the city centre, with universities from France to Ireland running initiatives to bring residents from surrounding areas onto campus, and take their expertise into local communities.

For instance, when Technological University Dublin and Dublin City Council came together to develop a new campus in the deprived district of Grangegorman, they opened it up to the rest of the city. The community eat with the students in the canteen, new buildings reuse material from the old site, renewable energy is stored locally, with excess power released onto the grid, and signage throughout the campus is the same as the rest of the city, blurring the edges between the university and the city.

Technology can play an important and often decisive role in tackling urban problems. But the smart city of the future is more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that better represent residents, than flashy new developments that resemble visions from science fiction.The Conversation

James Ransom, PhD candidate, international higher education, UCL. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. (Main image: Grangegorman campus, Technological University Dublin. Technological University Dublin, Author provided)
Categories
Universities

Tracking strategic internationalisation over time

Giorgio Marinoni and Hans de Wit ask in a recent edition of International Higher Education whether ‘the internationalisation of higher education has become a strategic process at higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world’.

They correctly note that having a strategy does not mean having a strategic approach. Drawing on a survey of 907 universities from 126 countries, they conclude that ‘the presence of an institution-wide policy/strategy for internationalisation, as well as the presence of a dedicated office or team to oversee its implementation, are becoming the norm at HEIs around the world’. Both the presence of a strategy and of dedicated teams have grown significantly over the past 15 years, according to previous survey data.

However, the development of monitoring frameworks has ‘stagnated’, and the authors find a risk of a gulf opening up between those institutions who choose to (and can afford to be) strategic about internationalisation, and those who are less engaged.

These discussions build on two related strands of work I’ve been involved with in the past: universities working with cities on internationalisation (with a central conclusion being a need for ‘strategic internationalisation’), and the ineffectiveness of many university engagement strategies. On the latter, and with a UK-focus, this post on the HEPI blog is worth a read: ‘almost 63% of university strategies have end dates in 2019, 2020 or 2021 and hence will need to be re-written and re-launched over the next few years’.

(Image credit: Unsplash)